Commentary

Muhammad Ali: Ultimate role model

On the occasion of Ali's 70th birthday, a call to action to other pro athletes

Originally Published: January 17, 2012
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Professional athletes: Take note. You might think you can create a legacy by winning championships or amassing great statistics. You might think you can say and do anything as long as you are in the public eye for your athletic ability. But look around and see how enduring those who came before you are. You'll find this common bond: The former great athletes whose legacies are secure are the ones who made important connections with their communities.

The others? They may have had an entourage of fellow celebrities while they were competing, but who was hanging with them when they were done? Did they touch people outside the public view?

Would someone drive all night just to catch a glimpse of them 30 years after they retired from competition? An auto mechanic named James did just that on Saturday.

My friends are aware that I have known Muhammad Ali since the late 1970s. They often ask, "How is Muhammad?" They are usually referring to the effect of Parkinson's disease on his life and body. So many people who never met Muhammad care about him and are grateful for his presence on this planet.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali & Lonnie Ali
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMuhammad Ali and his wife, Lonnie, right, observed his 70th birthday at a celebration in Louisville on Saturday.

I assure them that he and his wife, Lonnie, are as engaged as ever in various causes, from world peace to fighting against poverty to finding a cure for Parkinson's. Invariably, I can see the relief on their faces. People really care about him. He has touched all of their lives.

I wish they all could have been among the 300 people (including James, the auto mechanic) who gathered Saturday night at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., to celebrate Ali's 70th birthday, which is Tuesday. The invitation-only party attracted lots of celebrities but also people whose names are less well known but whose lives have been impacted by Ali.

Singer John Mellencamp and composer David Foster performed. NBC's "Today Show" host Ann Curry spoke, making the point that Ali had given so much love to the world that a wave of love is coming back at him so big it could knock even him out.

People who have recorded his life paid tribute, including Ali's friend and noted photographer Howard Bingham and screenwriter Greg Howard, who wrote "Ali," the film.

Figures from the world of sports in attendance included former heavyweight boxing champ Lennox Lewis, University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari and Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, who is now 90 years old. And other public figures spoke -- among them Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, Rep. John Yarmuth and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. They all talked about what Ali means to them and why.

But, as always, the most moving moments in the evening came when you least expected them.

A strapping man took the podium. Troy Yocum told us that when he was a teenager, his mother bought him a poster of Ali and explained to him how hard Ali worked to beat the odds to become the champ. Yocum's mother, he said, hoped it would inspire her son to overcome some of the obstacles in his life. Each time he became discouraged, he stood by the poster and got a dose of Ali inspiration.

Now a soldier back from fighting in a distant war with his American brothers and sisters, Yocum told us how looking at the poster in his tent reinforced his courage to go out and fight the next morning.

Also there that night were Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, the three American hikers imprisoned in Iran in July 2009. (Shroud was released in September 2010 after 14 months; Fattal and Bauer were held until late September.) On Saturday, they told the crowd in Louisville that their devastated spirits had been lifted when they heard that Ali had led a prominent group of American Muslims to enter the negotiations for their freedom.

At one point, 15 young adults took the stage. They are benefiting from the outstanding youth programs that are part of Ali's continually expanding legacy at the Ali Center in Louisville. They announced 15 rounds, as in a boxing match. Each of them announced a round, followed by one of the varied contributions Ali has made to the world. When they got to Round 15, they all said "Happy Birthday, Muhammad Ali!"

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesIn May 2010, Muhammad Ali and other prominent American Muslims appealed for the release of three American hikers detained in Iran.

I, too, was fortunate to be asked to say something. I told Muhammad that he is one of two people in my lifetime who have been able to bring people together no matter what the color of their skin, the faith they follow, their age, education or income. The other is Nelson Mandela. I told Muhammad that after I attended Mandela's inauguration in May 1994, I accompanied him to a stadium in Johannesburg to watch a Zambia-South Africa soccer match. I told Mandela then about how I held him and Ali in such high esteem. President Mandela responded, "If I was in a crowded room with Ali, I would stop what I was doing and go to him. He is the Greatest."

As the event ended, James, the mechanic, was beaming. He was a guest at the table where my wife and I sat. He said, "I never thought I would get the chance to be in a room with Ali. He has been my inspiration for most of my life."

In fact, when I looked around the room, everyone was beaming. Those who knew Ali and those who had only dreamed of being around him. Everyone seemed to feel better because they had those moments with Ali.

So please, I implore today's athletes to recognize that their long-term legacy will be measured more by the people they touch than by the wins and statistics they accumulate.

They should celebrate Ali. And for those who ask, "How is Muhammad?" the answer is this: "Greater than ever!"

Happy birthday, Muhammad. And thank you, Lonnie, for being such a great angel on Earth, for taking such good care of Muhammad and for working tirelessly for his causes, which have become your causes. I love you both.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

MORE COMMENTARY

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE